On the Job   //   January 26, 2022

On the job: How one CEO traded his suit for a forklift when most of his staff got Covid

The world of work is changing fast, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Some people have found themselves in jobs that didn’t exist two years ago, while others have had to adapt and evolve their own roles to cope with unexpected situations. This article is the first in WorkLife’s On the Job series, which will feature first-person accounts of how people are adapting to the changing realities of work and workplaces.

Craig Rochat, CEO of Land of Plenty Food Group, did not expect to enter the New Year taking an urgent crash course in operating a forklift truck. But that’s what he was faced with when two-thirds of his staff came down with Covid in the first week of January, and he found himself alone at his warehouse in Sydney, Australia. Rochat, who runs the food manufacturer and distributor alongside his wife Karen Lavecky, its founder and creative director, had no choice but to hang up his suit and begin loading up pallets onto trucks for distribution.

It was a physically brutal week, he told WorkLife. Yet it had some unexpected advantages: He got a close-up of the inefficiencies that he wouldn’t have seen from his office. Fixing them was the first thing he did upon returning to the office — after a well-earned soak in Epsom salts.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and flow.

Set the scene. How did you wind up as a forklift operator a few weeks ago? 

The time leading up to the holiday season is traditionally a very busy period for us, so I told the team I was giving everyone the week off between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s been a rough run for the last two years. I figured I’ll run a skeleton crew, I’ve got a part-time person in the warehouse and I’ll be there too. We didn’t expect to be busy.

We got smashed. I spent more time in the warehouse than I did in my office. The team came back one after the other calling out because they had either tested positive or came into contact with someone who did so had to isolate, at various stages over the New Year’s long weekend. I had to send people from the office to go and help run one of the kitchens [where they make Bondi Yoghurt] and then literally, I had no one else.

It was just a perfect storm. There’s nothing that can prepare you for having no one at the warehouse, which is how I ended up on the forklift. The warehouse would normally run on four people in various levels of work. But it was being run by me, the CEO, a part-time employee who did a phenomenal job, and my wife who came down periodically to help with other things.

What was an average day like for you in the warehouse?

We’re a national supplier and we’re very fortunate to be a supplier for Qantas, the national airline, so we had a fair number of orders that had to be loaded onto pallets. It’s like playing Tetris. The product comes in, gets booked in and then gets booked out again. During the busier periods, we can manage 25 to 40 pallets per week inbound and outbound alongside about up to 200 smaller deliveries. In that week we had a significant number of orders for Qantas. On the day we finished for Qantas, we packed and dispatched seven pallets to them alone. Traditionally the warehouse runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. but we ended up staying well past that.

I was loading up pallets, using a forklift and packing chilled and frozen foods. So I spent a lot of time in and out of freezers. We’d had a heatwave so it was hot and humid, as it is generally this time of the year. And you know, that has its own challenges. You get a sore throat because you’ve been in the freezer and suddenly you’re declaring yourself Covid positive. I started testing myself on a regular basis but I kept coming up negative. Then I started arguing with myself saying, “Well, that’s impossible, because I’ve got a sore throat.” Then you remember that you’ve been in a freezer of -20 degrees and then walking into a warehouse at 38-degrees temperature (100-degrees Fahrenheit) and realizing well, maybe that was the problem.

I started at 7 a.m. and finished at 7 p.m., and I didn’t see my desk for five days. When you don’t have your core people and you take on a competency that you haven’t touched in a very long time, the first few days are chaotic and painful. I was literally broken. I said to my business partner, I need to take a bath for an hour and soak in salts.

That’s got to have a domino effect, impacting your responsibilities as CEO?

January tends to be the month where you catch up on admin post-November, December. We were supposed to go away for a family vacation but had to cancel that trip.

Were there takeaways from being on the ground?

"It was just a perfect storm. There's nothing that can prepare you for having no one at the warehouse, which is how I ended up on the forklift."
Craig Rochat, CEO of Land of Plenty Food Group.

Being in the warehouse allowed me to see inefficiencies that have not been focused on. They’re things you don’t pay attention to when you’re in an office. So there were two or three things that we resolved to sort out immediately. They were newer processes that looked efficient on paper for the admin team but were counter-productive for the warehouse team. The key takeaway is to stress test an administration process at the end of the chain before implementing it. This seems simple enough but given many admin processes are driven by me, I got a first-hand lesson in what they looked like to the people executing them.

The other key takeaway is warehouse and logistics in our business is actually a customer service department. The last contact had with our customers is from our driver or warehouse team. Again, sounds simple but when you are sitting in your office, the real-world detail to really deliver this experience can be lost. If the orders are packed incorrectly, or the product isn’t managed efficiently, and orders aren’t dispatched on time, that has an impact on customer service.

Did you feel renewed appreciation for the warehouse employees and if so, did you express it to them?

As we say in Australia, bloody oath! We’re investing in new warehouse infrastructure in February, but in hindsight, this should have been done much sooner given it will reduce the physical workload. My commercial business and operations manager is already giving me the “I told you so.”